21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church[a] sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven[b] times.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents[c] was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii;[d] and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister[e] from your heart.”
Ah Peter. How I love you and how you give me hope.
It’s heartwarming to know that Jesus must have found Peter almost as annoying as he finds me … And encouraging to know that Peter must have found Jesus as frustrating as I do.
Peter comes to Jesus with a question. 'How many times should I forgive someone?’
For the record, this is a good question and Peter is suggesting a reasonably gracious life.
He does not limit forgiveness to a second chance.
He does not subscribe to ‘three strikes and you’re out’ thinking.
Seven times, when you think about it, is a lot. (Depending on how easily offended or upset you are ...)
But asking how much is necessary is really asking this:
‘How many times must I do what is right before I can do what I want?’
Jesus responds, ‘Not seven times but, I tell you, seventy-seven times!’ or, in other translations, ‘seventy times seven.’
A friend who grew up in a Christian home recently told me that he took this verse to heart as a kid. He used to keep a record of how many times his brother had sinned against him and was looking forward with excitement to the day when he would reach the magic number ... and could stop forgiving him.
There is something beautiful and innocent about such literalism, something akin to Drax the Destroyer’s inability to grasp metaphor in one of my favourite scenes in Guardians of the Galaxy. Rocket says, ‘Metaphors are gonna go right over his head’ to which Drax responds:
The challenge of such literalism is that it distracts us from Jesus’ intention and mission.
He did not come to clarify the numbers … He came to free us from them. To free us from Peter’s question about ‘How much is enough?’ There is no ‘enough’ nor is God looking for it. As Paul says, ‘Love keeps no record of wrongs.’ (1 Corinthians 13:5)
The question that we are left with and that Jesus asks us through parable is, ‘What is your response to being forgiven?’
Considering that a talent is worth about 16 years of work, the first slave in the parable is forgiven an obscene sum of money. If that number is correct, 10,000 talents is around 160,000 years at an average wage. Jesus is talking about a 'Wall Street financial crash' amount of money. The king is forgiving a first century Bernie Madoff despite the destruction his greed has wreaked on individuals, families and communities.
The slave realizes he is in trouble. He begs for forgiveness. He pleads for more time.
And yet, no sooner has he left, he confronts a man who owes him a hundred denarii (about 3 month’s wages). He grabs him by the throat, chokes him and demands to be given what he is owed. This not just a commandment to forgive, it is a meditation on what unforgiveness says about what we believe.
The unmerciful servant believes that he owes is trivial — but what is owed to him is crucial.
He believes that he deserves to be forgiven — while the other slave deserves to have his debt choked out of him.
He believes he is the center of the universe, that he is too big to fail and too important to be held responsible for the consequences of his actions.
He, in his heart, believes that he is the master, that he is the judge of who owes what and whose debt matters.
This is the road we lead our heart down when we refuse to forgive. This is who we are in danger of becoming.
The answer is to Peter’s question is not seven, nor 77, nor 490.
The answer is ‘blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.’ (Matthew 5:7)
The answer is ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’ (Matthew 6:12)
The answer is ‘forgive them Father for they do not know what they do.’ (Luke 23:34)
The answer that Peter gets is essentially Jesus saying, ‘Just start forgiving and I’ll tell you when to stop.'